Six Months at the White House/LXXX
At the end of six months' incessant labor, my task at the White House drew near completion. On the 22d of July, the President and Cabinet, at the close of the regular session, adjourned in a body to the State Dining-room, to view the work, at last in a condition to receive criticism. Sitting in the midst of the group, the President expressed his "un-schooled" opinion, as he called it, of the result, in terms which could not but have afforded the deepest gratification to any artist.
The curiosity of the public to see the picture was so great that during the last two days of my stay in Washington, by the kind permission of the President, it was placed in the East Room, and thrown open to the public. During this time the house was thronged with visitors, the porters estimating their number each day at several thousands.
Towards the close of the second day's exhibition, intending to have the canvas taken down and rolled up during the night for transportation to New York, I watched for an opportunity to say a last word to Mr. Lincoln previous to his leaving for the Soldiers' Home, where the family were then staying. At four o'clock the carriage drove up to the door, accompanied by the "Black-Horse Cavalry" escort. Knowing the President would soon appear, I stepped out under the portico to wait for him. Presently I caught sight of his unmistakable figure standing half-way between the portico and the gateway leading to the War Department leaning against the iron fence,--one arm thrown over the railing, and one foot on the stone coping which supports it, evidently having been intercepted, on his way in from the War Department, by a plain-looking man, who was giving him, very diffidently, an account of a difficulty which he had been unable to have rectified. While waiting, I walked out leisurely to the President's side. He said very little to the man, but was intently studying the expression of his face while he was narrating his trouble. When he had finished, Mr. Lincoln said to him, "Have you a blank card?" The man searched his pockets, but finding none, a gentleman standing near, who had overheard the question, came forward and said, "Here is one, Mr. President." Several persons had in the mean time gathered around. Taking the card and a pencil, Mr. Lincoln sat down upon the low stone coping, presenting almost the appearance of sitting upon the pavement itself, and wrote an order upon the card to the proper official to "examine this man's case." While writing this, I observed several persons passing down the promenade smiling, at what I presume they thought the undignified appearance of the head of the nation, who, however, seemed utterly unconscious, either of any impropriety in the action, or of attracting any attention. To me it was not only another picture of the native goodness of the man, but of true nobility of character, exemplified not so much by a disregard of conventionalities, as in unconsciousness that there could be any breach of etiquette or dignity in the manner of an honest attempt to serve or secure justice to a citizen of the Republic, however humble he might be. Rising to his feet he handed the man the card, with a word of direction, and then turning to me said: "Well C----, I must go in and take one more look at the picture before you leave us." So saying, he accompanied me to the East Room, and sitting down in front of it, remained for some time in silence. I said that I had at length worked out my idea, as he expressed it at our first interview, and would now be glad to hear his final suggestions and criticism.
"There is little to find fault with," he replied; "the portraiture is the main thing, and that seems to me absolutely perfect."
I then called his attention afresh to the accessories of the picture, stating that these had been selected from the objects in the Cabinet chamber with reference solely to their bearing upon the subject. "Yes," said he, "there are the war-maps, the portfolios, the slave-map, and all; but the book in the corner, leaning against the chair-leg,--you have changed the title of that, I see." "Yes," I replied; "at the last moment I learned that you frequently consulted, during the period you were preparing the Proclamation, Solicitor Whiting's work on the 'War Powers of the President,' and as Emancipation was the result in fact of a military necessity, the book seemed to me just the thing to go in there; so I simply changed the title, leaving the old sheepskin cover as it was." "Now," said he, "Whiting's book is not a regular law-book. It is all very well that it should be there; but I would suggest that as you have changed the title, you change also the character of the binding. It now looks like an old volume of United States Statutes." I thanked him for this criticism, and then said: "Is there anything else that you would like changed or added?" "No," he replied, and then repeated very emphatically the expression he used when the design was first sketched upon the canvas: "It is as good as it can be made."
I then referred at some length, to the enthusiasm in which the picture was conceived and had been executed, concluding with an expression of my profound appreciation of the very unusual opportunities afforded me in the prosecution of the work, and his unvarying kindness and consideration through the many weeks of our intercourse.
He listened pensively,--almost passively, to me,--his eyes fastened upon the picture. As I finished he turned, and in his simple-hearted, earnest way, said: "C----, I believe I am about as glad over the success of this work as you are." And with these words in my ear, and a cordial "goodbye" grasp of the hand, President and painter separated: the one to gather into and around himself more and more the affections of a mighty people, till in the culmination and attainment of all his heart's desires he should be called from "glory to glory;" the other, in his humble sphere, to garner as a precious legacy to him and his these fragments of leaves from the daily life of one whose name and fame--inseparably bound up with devotion to freedom and reverence for law, fragrant with the tender memories and sweet humanities of life--are to grow brighter and stronger with God's eternal years, as men learn to appreciate and emulate a true Christian manhood.